In May, it will be three years when around 38,000 fish rose belly up in the Ogeechee River from Screven to Bryan County and anywhere else downstream of the Dover-based King American Finishing plant.
Warnings from the state of the public health concerns of the fish kill should have taken a matter of hours but instead it took two days. And in the in the days and weeks that followed, it was learned that not only had the textiles plant been illegally discharging treated wastewater into the river since 2007, but the state Environmental Protection Division had failed in all that time to discover that the illegal discharge was even happening.
Since that Memorial Day weekend in 2011, it’s been a rocky ride of discharge permits, law suits, public hearings and moments when it seemed like no one of any authority, let alone King America Finishing, cared much for the condition of the river.
But the Ogeechee has seen a few victories in the past few months, including a settlement in November between the textile plant and the Ogeechee Riverkeeper that included stepped-up monitoring and tighter pollution controls in King America’s new discharge permit, as well as $2.5 million that is helping fund the organization’s efforts to protect the river.
But the latest victory came a week ago on March 18, when the Georgia Senate passed House Bill 549 — a bill improving the state’s response to emergency pollution spills. According to the legislation, the bill “requires appropriate and timely responses to emergencies that threaten the state’s waters and proper public notification, coordination and training between the state and local communities to protect the health of our families during emergencies.” Additionally, the bill requires the EPD to maintain an emergency response program.
According to an article by the Associated Press, “The bill makes clear that all spills must be reported immediately to the EPD. If the environmental agency believes a spill could harm downstream health or property, the EPD would be required to consult with the Georgia Emergency Management Agency and other officials within 24 hours to determine whether they need to notify the public about the threat.”
Still, it seems silly that it takes an act of the General Assembly to make a state agency to do its intended job — in this case help protect the state’s natural resources and its public. And hopefully the Legislature will back the bill up with the funds necessary for the EPD to fulfill its required tasks. But the bill is a start and shows the public’s outrage at the EPD and its lack of action in recent years, at least along coastal Georgia, hasn’t gone unnoticed in Atlanta.
It’s likely to be a while before the state agency earns the trust of the residents and lovers of the Ogeechee River, but we hope that won’t keep the EPD from taking HB 549 seriously and trying to earn its way into the public’s good graces.